Strategic Storytelling

I was having a conversation recently with a colleague about organisational strategy and culture. We were comparing our experiences with, and approaches to, various clients. My colleague works primarily from a communications perspective, analysing how organisatins communicate internally and how they manage their external or PR functions.

The conversation began to focus on the nature of the stories we tell, both within organisations and the stories we tell to present ourselves and our organisation to the wider world. We did a lot of name dropping in the course of that coffee, invoking the remarkable body of academic work on the function of stories within organisations by Professor Yiannis Gabriel, and of course we had to talk about Campbell and the notion of the Heroes Journey.

Its been my experience, working in the culture sector, that some clients get very excited when the business tools are deployed. The BCG Box, the Blue Ocean Graph, The SWOT and PESTLE, Weisbord’s Six Box Model etc. etc. However, I have found a healthy suspicion toward these tools with some business clients and students, a sense that a rational approach alone will not deliver the necessary insights.

So I developed the Story Box. Because clients love a good Box. Its proven to be a really insightful, useful and popular tool. And here it is:

The O’Brien Story Box © 2019

According to Campbell and his work on comparative mythology, the basic elements of mythology are similar across many different cultures, This, he suggests, implies that the basic narrative form of story is deeply embedded in the human mind, society and culture. For practical purposes I have simplified the form to four basic elements. Every story we tell, about ourselves, about others, about our organisations, or about our society has a hero, somebody who has the ability to “save the day”, somebody on a quest with a strong vision; every Hero has a Guide, somebody who will guide them through the forest of uncertainties etc.; every story has a Dragon, that lies between the Hero and the Treasure that could help or save us all; and every story has a Treasure, be it equality, or justice or Brexit or impeachment, or a greener future, or creativity for everybody, or love, or freedom, or higher sales with lower effort, or more repeat business or more funding for the arts, etc. etc.

Using this tool is fun, but the real skill lies in the analysis of the answers. Basically, we can ask an organisation to say who they are in the story it tells about itself in the world. A lot of organisations – in my experience to date – think that they are The Hero, and their customers/audience are their guide, pointing them toward the treasure; some organisations think that The Dragon is regulation, or government policy, or the education system. Some organisations think that the customer or audience is the Hero, and they are the guide, etc.. Its also great fun to ask individuals who they think they are within the internal story of the organisation – that leads to some really valuable insights for all involved.

And of course it can be very interesting to get people to bring a photograph or a found image for each of the boxes, to visualise each of the elements, and have a conversation around that! Out of this simple Story Box and the conversations and realisations prompted by it come risks, and opportunities, and actions, and cultural shifts, and user profiles, and confessions, and recognitions and all manner of goodies.

Why does this work? Because people think and live their lives in stories, in personally curated perceptions and memories. In my experience the story elements are understood on a deep, emotional, and non-rational level, and this allows access to real cause/effect relationships, to motivations and misunderstandings, and allows us to identify actions that are deeply felt and passionately followed. Story – at its best – is revelatory.

One of the more interesting ideas that emerged from this conversation mentioned above was on the topic of The Treasure. The Treasure is the only inert element of a story. If we start by thinking that we, or our organisation, or our sector is The Treasure then we are defining ourselves as inert and unable to engage in action. The Dragon guards the Treasure, hoarding it and sleeping on it; the Hero attempts to free the Treasure from the Dragon, The Guide advises and trains the Hero; but the Treasure does nothing. If we think that we are the Treasure in the story then we resign ourselves to glittering inaction, waiting to be rescued or stolen.

My colleague, knowing my background, then posed the question: “Is that the problem with the arts sector in this part of the world?” I’m still mulling that one over.

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